Who We Are
The first thing to be said about our congregation is how typical it is. It is a typical suburban
middle-sized congregation. At worship, on Sunday morning the Word of God is proclaimed and
the Sacraments are administered. The choir rehearses on Thursday evening. The children learn
Bible stories in Sunday School. Bake Sales raise extra money for a mission. Bible studies are
offered on Romans to Revelation. Hospital calls are made. And so on. All these are typical
activities of suburban middle-sized congregations. None of which are distinctive. What is
distinctive about the congregation is the freedom of conscience clause in the constitution.
What does this mean? It means that each member must determine for him or herself matters of
faith. To be sure, grounded in Scripture, under the influence of the Spirit, and in dialogue with
the community of the faithful, but in the end, the decision must be made by each believer. No
one else can make that decision for you. Practically speaking, it means that the person in the
pew next to you may hold the opposite position you do with regard to what you consider the
most central to your faith.
This freedom of conscience is not something new or novel for the congregation. It has been part
of the constitution from the beginning. Burr Ridge United Church of Christ is the union of
Immanuel and Saint John Churches. Immanuel was organized in 1898. Saint John, which
merged with Immanuel in 1972, was organized in 1877. In both congregations, there was a
freedom of conscience clause. Why?
German immigrants founded both congregations. Immigrants who were from Prussia. Early in
the 19th century, the Lutheran Reformed Churches in Prussia entered a union. To make this
possible, adherents of both churches were given the freedom to adhere to their original beliefs,
hence the freedom of conscience clause. When members of this union immigrated to America
later in the 19th century they organized new churches and retained the freedom
Someone once said that this freedom on conscience clause is a recipe for theological anarchy
and chaos. If everyone is free to believe as they please, the end result could be, should be a
theological mess. And yet, nothing could be further from the truth. To be sure, there is
considerable theological diversity, even in central matters of faith. Yet, there is no chaos. Why?
It has to do with wherein we understand our unity and diversity. We begin with an established
and noncontroversial distinction. We distinguish between our faith in Christ and thinking about
our faith in Christ. These two are different, even if related, activities. Our faith is given and
nurtured in the context of the proclamation of the Word of God and the administration of the
Sacraments. In worship, the crucified and resurrected Christ is present and invites us to
participate in the divine drama of salvation. In baptism, faith is established in our hearts. In
preaching and the Lord's Supper, that faith is renewed and strengthened.
However, we are able to step back and critically reflect upon our faith in Christ. What does it
mean for our understanding of God, the world, and self? What does it imply for our life of faith in
the world? What are we called to witness and do? Given our uniqueness, our answers to these
questions will differ. And they do differ. To be sure, not for everyone and not all the time. But we
do differ. Yet, there is no chaos. Why?
The congregation understands that its unity is grounded solely in our faith in Christ, in our
experience of the crucified and resurrected Christ. This is primary and original. Each of us
shares this faith in common. This is what unites us. This is what is distinctive of the
congregation. Our unity is not grounded in our thoughts about Christ, which is at best and at
most are secondary and derivative. And no matter how different our thoughts about Christ are,
they cannot compromise the basis, the integrity of our unity. Christ remains one, our faith in
Christ remains one, even though our thoughts about Christ are many.
So, this is how a typical suburban middle-sized congregation with theological diversity remains united.
Reverend Timothy C. Rhodes